The next government should save the armed forces—and leave weapons makers to sink or swimby Lewis Page / October 21, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
ABOVE: A British arms industry exhibition in London Britain’s next government will be forced to reduce spending. But given the wide agreement that these cuts should not affect the NHS or social security, the smallish departments, like the ministry of defence (responsible for about 5 per cent of spending) seem the likely targets. A 10 per cent cut at the MoD (some £4bn a year), is on the cards. At the same time, the main political parties agree that the 1998 strategic defence review (SDR), still the main guide to policy, also needs rewriting. This worries many in the defence sector. The SDR promised that Britain would keep the ability to intervene militarily around the world. A secondary document, the defence industrial strategy (DIS) of 2005, guaranteed the continued existence of Britain’s arms industry. But with a new defence review and cuts in funding, one of those will have to go. And the arms industry is right to fear that the British people would prefer to keep their excellent armed forces, and jettison their economically insignificant, parasitical defence industry. Consider the examples. Until recently, only a handful of British helicopters were capable of flying in Afghanistan. (The country is high and hot, so only powerful modern helicopters work there.) And even our modest troop numbers are already too numerous for the aircraft we can deploy. Why don’t we just buy new helicopters? The American Sikorsky Black Hawk, for instance, is widely used in Afghanistan, by the Americans and also by British generals unable to find a suitable British alternative. Sikorsky has offered to sell to them, in large numbers and at favourable prices. Instead, we are refurbishing various antiques, such as the Puma. This dates from the 1960s and was due to retire in 2010. Now it will be patched up and its life extended by a decade. This will cost £10m per aircraft. Brand-new Black Hawks cost only about £8m and would fly for decades longer. But there would be nothing in it for British industry. So it didn’t happen. Similarly, in September the first of the RAF’s “new” Nimrod MRA4 submarine-hunter planes took to the skies. The MoD is to receive nine of these antique refurbished De Havilland Comet airliners. They will be the most expensive aircraft ever bought by the RAF, costing as much as four new space shuttles. But Nimrod has kept BAE Systems’s Woodford factory open for a decade; as soon as it became clear that the MoD wasn’t going to buy any more, BAE announced that it would close. Cases like this—and they are the rule, not the exception—illustrate the fact that the SDR and the DIS are antagonistic, not complementary. A powerful military and a domestic defence-industrial base both cost money—from the same budget. The difference is that the latter is far less valuable. Some disagree—without our own arms industry, they say, we’d have to go cap in hand to foreign governments for parts and support. This argument routinely appears in the national press. Fortunately, it’s bunk. We have to go cap in hand anyway, as all “British” projects have substantial foreign input. The Pumas need European engines and US electronics. The equipment fitted to our vintage De Havilland Comets comes from Germany, Israel and elsewhere. Even the Eurofighter, which you might think free of US influence, contains so much American kit that it cannot be sold without clearance from Washington. Other arguments are even thinner. Britain’s manufactured defence exports are £1-2bn a year: minuscule, especially given that the government hands out £10-15bn in defence contracts every year. Even arms executives admit that workers are kept employed, not by value-added, high-tech exports, but by the likes of Nimrod and Puma. Are there other ways of saving money? None that don’t involve cuts to our forces. The idea of unifying all the services—army, navy and air—is occasionally proposed. This would generate savings, though probably not £4bn a year, and not without scrapping some capabilities. All three armed forces would be happy to ditch our nuclear deterrent, but only if they got the money saved. (People are always surprised by military men’s dislike of nukes.) But Britain’s nuclear force has already been reduced to its cheapest viable form. While we can probably come down from four missile subs to three, as we are doing, without losing the ability to have one always at sea, it won’t save much. Indeed, it may cost more, thanks to the need for round-the-clock maintenance and refits. If this rather meaningless concession can be turned into a bargaining chip sufficient to win the disarmament of Iran, say, it might be worth doing—but not otherwise. So forget about merging forces, or scrapping subs. The real battleground is between Britain’s armed forces and its arms industry. For too long the businessmen have had it all their own way. The solution to the next government’s defence cuts is simple: rather than reducing the armed forces to a glorified home guard, simply let the mediocre arms business sink or swim. Much of it will sink—but it is no great loss. The armed forces would be.